This is part two of a Blog ‘Mike the Man of the Rás ‘73’, part one was published last month. In May 2013 Carlow County Museum unveiled a special temporary exhibition to mark the fortieth anniversary of Carlow man Mike O’Donaghue winning the Rás Tailteann (now the An Post Rás), Ireland’s premier bike race in 1973. This Blog gives a summary of Mike’s great win and some career highlights.
For much of his career Mike wore the distinctive Carlow tri-colour jersey. He was probably the first Irish cyclist to have a sponsor – Carlow’s famous mineral water company Corcoran & Co. Ltd. In a number of hand written letters to Mike, Paddy Governey Snr of Corcoran’s wrote to Mike congratulating him on his various successes and in one letter dated the 14th of July 1967 states ‘You certainly gave Carlo Orange & Lemon plenty of publicity and we hope you will allow us to sponsor you next year again’. Depending on Corcoran’s wishes Mike wore names such as ‘Carlo Orange’, ‘Carlo Lemon’ and ‘Castle Orange’ across his jersey and on his shorts. Incidentally on the winning podium in the 1973 Rás whether by accident or not Mike wore his Corcoran & Co emblazed tracksuit top thus covering the yellow jersey sponsored by Tayto. In the south east and surrounding areas the Corcoran’s truck was often present near the race finish line. It was by all accounts a good promotional opportunity for the company and indeed the cyclists appreciated sampling the merchandise to satisfy their thirst after a day in the saddle. Mike was one of the few Irish riders to wear sunglasses while racing, indeed such was the virtual absence of cycling glasses in the country he wore normal sunglasses. Mike with his tri-coloured jersey, sunglasses and haircut (part of his pre Rás preparations) cut quite a dash as he raced along the high ways and by ways of Ireland.
Video of the ‘Mike the Man of the Rás ‘73’ exhibition held in Carlow County Museum in 2013.
Mike also sampled international cycling, he was the third cyclist to represent Ireland at both road and track races. One French newspaper, Quest France in August 1974 after a race victory by Mike in France referred to him as an unorthodox cyclist. In essence Mike spotted an opportunity a little further out than the usual 200/300 meters to make his final move and burst into the lead. The group of mainly French riders were simply caught unawares by Mike who make good his advantage and won, somewhat to their annoyance and this was reflected in the subsequent newspaper report. According to Mike’s Carlow contemporaries Eddie Dawson and Billy Archibold Mike was an astute and ‘class’ cyclist. Much of his work was done in training prior to races. Billy well remembers Mike’s tactical astuteness and knowledge of his competitors. Before a race Mike would talk to his fellow Carlow team mates about the course and which cyclists to watch out for and indeed follow. Mike himself stated that he would plan his races and his training accordingly, if an upcoming race was to be relatively flat he concentrated on speed work; if a race would be mountainous he concentrated the training on hill work. In preparation for the Rás Mike would certainly undertake at least fifty mile daily cycles increasing this up to one hundred miles over a weekend.
When Mike entered his ninth Rás in 1973 he had become one of Ireland’s top cyclists. Mike enlisted Ballon man and experienced cyclist Eddie Dawson as his manager for the race. Eddie, Mick Kinsella and Mike were the members of the Carlow team in the 1969 Rás. The race in 1969 saw the start of Eddie Dawson’s connection with the Rás, since then he has been involved every year either with a team participating or involved with the administration of the race. Presently he is the Assistant Race Director.
The twenty first edition of the Rás started on the evening of Friday June 29th 1973 at the GPO with Carlow as the stage finish. On the Saturday Mike won Stage 2 from Carlow to Waterford and again winning Stage 4 from Macroom to Tralee, Co. Kerry on the Monday, both in sprints. It was on the Wednesday that Mike made national sporting headlines, when after Stage 6 from Gort, Co. Galway to Belmullet, Co. Mayo Mike took over as race leader and for the first time wore the famed yellow jersey. Although cycling is an individual sport, being part of a cycling team is also very important. Many cyclists win races with the help of team mates such as assisting with pace making, following race breaks, leading out a team mate for the final sprint. During this period Carlow rarely had a large team to enter the Rás while counties like Dublin, Kerry and Meath might have two teams involved. This in mind it was spectacular that Mike had managed to become race leader and that he could seriously have the expectation of holding onto it for the next four stages. Mike’s tactical astuteness came to the fore, he knew the talents of most of his competitors and he used their abilities to his advantage. He also made some gentlemen’s agreements with cyclists he was friendly with, in particular Kildare man Paddy Flannagan with whom Mike had trained and raced with for years. In return for supporting each others efforts on the road Mike knew he had some temporary team mates. This was crucial because Mike had the misfortune on the next two stages from Belmullet to Donegal and Donegal to Clones to have a puncture on each stage.
Mike recalls that on Stage 7 when he received his first puncture he managed to get back to the group and cycled to the front so everybody was aware that he was still in the race. On Stage 8 when he punctured the peleton (main bunch) decided to race hard as there now was an opportunity for a new race leader to take over from Mike. Mike managed to catch up to the bunch but deliberately stayed at the back of the group. Many of the riders were unaware of Mike’s presence, still thinking they had an opportunity of taking over as race leader they maintained a fast pace. In particular the threat was from the French and Cork teams who had riders in second and third place. Eventually Mike made his way through the bunch and no doubt his presence was a deflation to his closely ranked competitors. Mike’s progress was reported widely in the daily newspapers and on the Sunday morning of July 8th many proud Carlovians made the journey to the Phoenix Park to witness the arrival of the final stage from Navan. If Mike had no disaster enroute and stayed with the bunch for the twenty laps of the Polo Ground circuit he would become the first rider from not only Carlow but from the south east to win the famed Rás Tailteann. Indeed this came to pass, no doubt it must have been hugely satisfying for Mike on those last few laps knowing that he was going to win. He was second overall in 1972 and he felt that would be the best he would achieve in the Rás, but just twelve months later he completed a worthy and deserved victory. Among his close supporters that day was his pregnant wife Jeanne who had played her part in Mike’s training by assisting with pace setting on her “Garelli” moped.
During Mike’s time competing in the Rás he won it in 1973, was second in 1972 and he won a total of nine stages. He won his first stage in 1965, in 1969 he won three stages, a stage in 1971 while in 1972 & 1973 he won two stages in each race. In 1965 and 1969 he won stages into his home town of Carlow. He retired in 1978 but decided to return in 1980 and finished competitive cycling in 1983. Such is the significance of cycling in Mike’s life he still cycles at least forty miles every day. In 2011 he was the recipient of the Hall of Fame award at the County Carlow Sports Star awards night.
The Rás Tailteann, or the An Post Rás, as it is now known, has been held annually without interruption since its inception 60 years ago in 1953. The Rás regularly visits County Carlow with both Carlow town and Tullow hosting stage finishes. Two of Mike’s Carlow team mates have had prominent roles in the Rás. In 1982 Bennekerry man Billy Archibold was the Rás Race Director while today Ballon man Eddie Dawson is the Assistant Race Director. The 2013 edition of the An Post Rás was the forty fourth consecutive year Eddie was involved in the Rás – well done Eddie.
To commemorate the fortieth anniversary of Mike’s great win Carlow County Museum developed a special exhibition titled ‘Mike the man of the Rás ‘73’. The exhibition was officially launched on Friday May 24th 2013 by Mel Christle, son of Joe Christle, the founder of the Ras. Mel, now a Senior Counsel, rode the Rás in 1971 and is believed to be the youngest ever competitor at just thirteen years of age. Similar to many cyclists of that era he emphasised that he simply wanted to complete the race. He was joined on the night by his brother Terry, both of them multi Irish champion boxers.
The exhibition launch coincided with Stage 6 of the 2013 An Post Rás stage finishing on Barrack Street, Carlow Town earlier that afternoon. Carlow County Museum has asked the An Post Rás to hold a stage end/start in Carlow to mark the anniversary. The An Post Rás embraced the opportunity and with the assistance of Carlow County Museum as Stage End Coordinator the riders cycled just over 154kms from Mitchelstown, Co Cork. This was the second longest stage of this years An Post Rás with the cyclists passing through counties Cork, Tipperary, Kilkenny and Laois. The lead riders that afternoon reached speeds of over 50kms per hour on the final sprint along Barrack Street. The Stage Winner in Carlow was Rico Rogers of the Azerbaijan Synergy Baku Cycling Team while the General Classification (Yellow Jersey) was retained by Marcin Bialoblocki of the UK Youth Pro Cycling Team. In fact Marcin Bialoblocki was the An Post Ras 2013 winner when the race finished on Sunday May 26th in Skerries, Co. Dublin. On Saturday May 25th after a parade from the Greenbank car park down Dublin Street the cyclists departed from the Post Office on Burin Street. The peleton travelled across the county and into Tullow and then headed towards Shillelagh. The stage end was in Naas after they had eight serious climbs in the Wicklow Mountains.
Two excellent reference books on the history of the Rás Tailteann are: ‘The Rás, a day by day diary of Ireland’s great bike race’ by Jim Traynor, 2008 and ‘The Rás, the story of Ireland’s unique bike race’ by Tom Daly, 2003. Sincere thanks to Mike, Jeanne O’Donaghue & family for assistance and access to Mike’s archive for both the exhibition and research. Thanks to Tony Campbell, Race Director and all at An Post Rás for support, encouragement and statistical information. Thanks to Eddie Dawson, Assistant Race Director for his help, information and access to his archive.
Mike just after crossing the finish line as the 1973 Rás Tailteann champion in the Phoenix Park. He is greeted by Carlovians Billy Archibold and Hugh Coogan while Tom Reilly, Meath looks on. Photo courtesy of Mike O’Donaghue.